Education About Asia: Online Archives

China From the Inside

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Reviewed by Jeffrey R. Johnson

photo of people voting at polling booths
Voters at polling booths in Liuqian village, Shandong Province, where there was a 96
percent turnout to elect the village head and village committee members. Some believe village elections are China’s first steps to democracy; others that they enable the
Communist Party to tighten its hold in the countryside—the candidates were all approved by the Party. Photo credit: Jonathan Lewis

How shall we describe the scope, pace, and consequences of change in contemporary China for students in American classrooms? China from the Inside, a four-hour Jonathan Lewis documentary that originally aired on PBS in January 2007, is a valuable resource for teachers who embrace this challenge. Lewis’ goal was to obtain candid perspectives on politics, gender, and the environment.

The four episodes of the documentary, “Power and the People,” “Women of the Country,” “Shifting nature,” and “Freedom and Justice,” provide faces and voices of those wrestling with the major issues, humanizing the statistics. As the introduction to each episode reminds us, Lewis and his crew had impressive access to both Communist Party officials and dissident intellectuals, along with workers and farmers for whom the rewards of economic development are often at best attenuated.

I tend to use films in segments, to underscore lectured material, or, more often, as prompts for class discussions or role-playing activities. Lewis has introduced key issues through such a variety of individuals that his documentary is very useful for these tasks. There are many instructive moments. Tears well in the eyes of the daughter of an AIDS patient infected due to a combination of government incompetence and corruption. An independent candidate knocks a chunk out of a slate of Party-approved candidates, gaining election to his village council. A gathering of Uyghur women becomes vocal on gender issues, but only after their husbands are shooed away. An environmentalist professor spars verbally with a bumbling propaganda official while inspecting anti-erosion work that is part of the Three Gorges Dam project. A priest explains the relationship between the government and the government-regulated Chinese Catholic Church. These and other scenes humanize issues for students.

photo of a large group of people standing in rows
The Communist Party of Xiamen City in southeast China honors its “model workers” (right, in red sashes). The party wholeheartedly backs capitalist-style economic growth to create prosperity. Xiamen makes computers for world markets and now produces more than Bahrain. Photo credit: Jonathan Lewis

The visual aspect of the series, from the pea soup smog of Chongqing to the stark highlands of Tibet, is another highlight, sure to provide students with a sense of what it is like to be in China today. True to its title, the series’ geographical scope stretches deeply into the country and encompasses both urban and rural areas. Official state news video and surreptitiously shot historical footage of dissident protests and arrests provide valuable content as well as drama.

An accompanying DVD for educators is a compilation of thirteen video clips culled from China from the Inside in which the individual programs are represented by segments ranging in length from two to eleven minutes. While these can be useful for classroom purposes, teachers who have viewed the entire series will be best prepared to introduce the scenes in context. The educators’ DVD also includes sample lesson plans pegged to California standards, an interactive map, vocabulary, and other materials. This is available separately from KQED. Ancillary materials also abound on the PBS Web site at